As participants of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing arrived at Burba Lake Pavilion No. 5, phones were pulled out and pictures of previous catches were proudly passed around the group.
“Look at this one I caught!” said Daniel Comrey as he flashed a photo of a large eel.
A medically retired Air Force staff sergeant, Comrey was among the 27 veterans and wounded warriors who celebrated PHWFF’s eight-year anniversary at Fort Meade on Sept. 15 from 3-6 p.m.
Participants from both Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Meade, as well as volunteers and board members, were all in attendance.
The group spent the afternoon swapping stories with friends, looking for a place where the fish were biting and occasionally catching them.
They later gathered around the pavilion to sit down and catch up over grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, and a celebratory cake. The group presented Larry Vawter, the program leader at Fort Meade for the past eight years, with a plaque for his long-standing dedication to PHWFF and its participants.
“The plaque was unexpected but also embarrassing,” Vawter said. “I am not about awards. It’s never about me, it’s only about my participants. I will do anything to help any one of them at any time about anything.”
Vawter said his favorite part as program leader is “seeing someone smile when they catch their first fish or when they think they can’t do something like tie a fly and then they do it.
“When a participant comes back every week, I know we’re doing something right,” he said.
Healing Waters was formally established in 2007 to help veterans and wounded warriors deal with visible and invisible scars. Since then, PHWFF has developed over 200 programs across the country and abroad.
Retired Maj. Valerie Taksue, who was medically retired after serving in the Army for 26 years, came to “honor the commitment of [PHWFF] volunteers and to celebrate them.”
Taksue, 54, has been a participant of PHWFF since 2011 when she was “tricked” into coming to a meeting. She had been placed in the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Meade and “didn’t want to do much” when she returned from Korea.
“Because of Healing Waters, I started doing things again like knitting and golf,” Taksue said. “It made me start living again.”
Taksue isn’t the only participant who feels she has benefited from PHWFF.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Erin Greene-Morse, who served in the Army for 20 years, said joining this program “saved my husband and saved our marriage.
“This is not a ‘fish and forget’ program,” she said. “It endures.”
Greene-Morse’s husband, retired Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Greene-Morse, got involved in PHWFF after meeting retired Capt. David Folkerts, now the chief operations officer for PHWFF, at Walter Reed in 2010.
Since then, Greene-Morse, her husband and their daughter have come to the group’s Thursday meetings for fishing and friendship. At first, she came as the spouse of a participant. But after she fell ill, Greene-Morse said, she was “welcomed with open arms.”
The Greene-Morses now live in Maine, where they participate with the PHWFF chapter there.
Folkerts, who served in the Army for seven years, also attended last week’s fly-fishing celebration.
“All veterans and wounded warriors are welcome here, regardless of disability rating or service era,” he said.
“Everybody here is part of the fish family,” she said.
Like most other participants, Folkerts credits Healing Waters with helping him get through difficult times.
“[PHWFF] gave me passion and purpose,” he said. “It literally helps you get through the darkness.”
George Gaines, the national capital regional coordinator for PHWFF, is a civilian volunteer who has been part of the program since its beginning.
“Most organizations that set up activities for veterans are a one-time thing,” Gaines said. “Participants will show up, do the activity and are told ‘see you later.’ At Healing Waters, we say ‘See you next week.’ ”
After doing research in order to get funding, Gaines learned that when service members leave the military, they lose two things: a unit and a uniform.
“The first thing people ask us for is a hat,” Gaines said. “That’s the uniform. Then they come to meetings and see they have support. That’s the unit.”
Editor’s note: For more information about Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, email Larry Vawter at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 443-535-5074.